Want to make your company a “thought leader”? First, get a thought

I recently ran across some rather puzzling correspondence that I had a few years ago with a veteran speechwriter concerning a column she was going to write for the newsletter I edited at the time, called The Influential Executive.

I had invited her to write a guest column and she suggested as a topic: how to help your leader become a thought leader. (Wikipedia: “Thought leader is business jargon for an entity that is recognized for having innovative ideas. The term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz Allen Hamilton magazine, Strategy & Business. ‘Thought leader’ was used to designate interview subjects for that magazine who had business ideas that merited attention.”)

“I can tell you from experience,” the speechwriter told me. Executives “are thirsty for content on how to be thought leaders. They’re honestly clueless and willing to listen to anyone they think actually knows what they’re talking about. Being ‘thought leaders’ is a corporate obsession. I promise.”

Okay, I said, you had me at “thirsty.” I gave her a word count and a deadline, and she agreed.

The deadline passed; I wrote to check  up.

“David, I would still love to do this but am just overwhelmed with work that came out of nowhere. I promise I didn’t forget. I’ve sat down to write it a couple of times, but always get interrupted. … I still have many thoughts on the topic to share.”

Another deadline passed.

“This article has been on my mind constantly, but I haven’t had a single chance to sit down and finish it. … my mom is sick, my car is in the shop ….”


“Look for it later tonight. I’m writing as we speak.”

I got the article, which reeled like a drunkard, somehow in the course of 800 words managing to get off topic in three different directions.

I asked her for a revision, telling her, “My readers are going to come to this article greedily wanting what we’re promising: ‘So your client wants to be a thought leader.’ I think we have to address the requirements and the tactics directly.”

She replied:

“But I truly don’t have a list of tips and tactics to offer. … What I was thinking about is the concept of true influence and what separates it from visibility. My thinking about it all might be a bit out there. I don’t even advise clients who really want to be true industry thought leaders to do traditional EV plans–not even keynotes unless the conference courts them. My alternative is that, if they’re going to speak at conferences, stay in the trenches with a really forward-thinking break-out topic. I know, that’s pretty radical. But talking head keynotes are becoming … pedestrian … for people who really want to set themselves apart. Are you okay with those kinds of ideas?”


“Perfecto!” she wrote. “That’s exactly what I had in mind.”

That was three years ago. Since then, silence. The Influential Executive is now defunct. But “thought leadership” limps along, on the backs of hope merchants, and the rare consultant who’s realistic about the difficulty of achieving it.

How to make a souffle: First, get a stove.

How to be a thought leader: First, get a thought. —DM

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